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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Web Gains New Importance After Dymovsky

After a provincial policeman’s YouTube appeal to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about corruption and unbearable working conditions became an Internet sensation earlier this month, officials all over the country have begun posting their grievances online.

Alexei Dymovsky, a ham-fisted yet convincingly earnest police major from the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, garnered well above a million clicks for his videos on YouTube alone, prompting even pro-Kremlin politicians like State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov to demand an inquiry into his claims.

Local police quickly sacked Dymovsky for slander and unleashed a torrent of allegations about his personal and professional conduct.

The phenomenon has given whistle-blowers a cheap and potentially influential platform to air their complaints, which otherwise might miss a national audience. But media freedom campaigners are concerned that the attention could lead to more zealous monitoring — and ultimately greater restrictions on the country’s freest source of information and opinion.

Users have been particularly alarmed as Yandex, the country’s top search portal, agreed to drop a list of most-discussed blog topics, which frequently featured opposition or nationalist political posts. The state has also been taking a bigger interest in the company, which it calls strategic.

In September, Yandex said it was selling Sberbank a golden share for a nominal 1 euro, giving the state-controlled bank a veto over the sale of a blocking 25 percent stake.

And while Yandex’s concessions have been minor and apparently voluntary, Internet users fear that they could lead to restrictions like those in China, where access to pro-democracy and foreign news web sites is severely limited.

“The state has long wanted to restrict the Internet, and this desire has only grown after Major Dymovsky’s actions,” human rights campaigner Lev Ponomaryov told The Moscow Times.

He said the number of Internet users in the country was bound to rise, and with them, the web’s significance as a source of information. “The numbers are going to go up, up, up,” he said.

Marketing company comScore estimated in May that Russia had an Internet audience of 32 million, almost doubled from a year earlier. While this amounts to more than 22 percent of the country’s roughly 140 million population, it is far less than the more than 50 percent common in Western Europe and 75 percent in North America.

By contrast, numerous surveys have shown that the vast majority of Russians use television as their main source for news, and that people spend five to 14 hours a day with TV sets switched on.

During Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the country’s television networks and much of the print media came under state control, which has continued under President Dmitry Medvedev.

Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 153rd out of 175 countries in its World Press Freedom index.

With television an increasingly dull place, political debate has shifted to the Internet, where LiveJournal has become the key political forum. But law enforcement authorities say they monitor social web sites, as well, for illegal and opposition activity.

“Not to use their potential would be irrational,” Moscow city police spokesman Viktor Biryukov told Politonline.ru earlier this month. “[Opposition activists] continued tweeting even after being detained in police busses. We follow what they write and what they plan,” Biryukov said, referring to the Twitter microblogging service.

Human rights campaigners have expressed concern that Internet providers are freely passing user data to security agencies.

“We’re looking into two tiers of concerns: technological restrictions like in China and the transmission of private information [to the Federal Security Service] without court orders,” said Alison Gill, the Moscow head of Human Rights Watch.

So far, there have been no signs of Chinese-style censorship, which some attribute to Medvedev’s vocal support for Internet users.

“The fact that Medvedev is an active supporter of Internet use is a guarantee that no censorship will be introduced,” said Andrei Richter, a professor of journalism at Moscow State University.

Medvedev has championed the web as a path for the country’s modernization. He started his own blog and regularly addresses the public through online videos. He also first published his 4,000-word “Go, Russia!” article on the politically independent Gazeta.ru news portal.

Others say a Great Firewall — as the elaborate Chinese system is called — would probably be inefficient.

Alexander Plyushchev, a television and radio host and prominent blogger, said unlike with TV, controlling the Internet to the extent that China does would demand massive technical and human resources. And even then, users might find ways around filters and blocks.

“Internet differs from television because you cannot just tell editors of a few stations what to do,” Plyushchev told The Moscow Times.

He added that the Kremlin was probably aware of this. “Allowing freedom of expression on the Internet might well turn out to be cheaper than suppressing it,” he said.

But the absence of direct restrictions does not mean that all is well for the country’s online journalists.

In 2008, Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the opposition site Ingushetiya.ru, was shot dead in Ingush police custody.

And bloggers have faced a spate of investigations in recent years — some for reporting on politics and corruption, others for potentially inflammatory commentary.

In March, Kemerovo prosecutors charged opposition activist Dmitry Solovyov with hate speech for posting someone else’s comments about law enforcement officials on his blog.

And in July 2008, a court in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi republic, handed blogger Savva Terentyev a one-year suspended sentence for a controversial post that said police officers should be “periodically set on fire” in city squares, “like in Auschwitz.”

Authorities are using extremism and libel laws to intimidate users, said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Institute for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

The easiest regulation for them to use is the one on extremism, thanks to its wide definition, he said. The law, passed in 2007, defines extremism as the “public slander of figures fulfilling state duties,” among other things.

Andrei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which advocates for press freedom, said current laws give authorities plenty of ways to punish bloggers and online journalists. “Extremism here is defined as any disagreement with the leadership in a more extreme form,” he said.

But Pavel Danilin, editor of Kreml.org and an analyst with the Effective Politics Foundation, a pro-Kremlin think tank, noted that the Russian-language Internet already harbors far more radical content than Dymovsky’s.

He mentioned the muckraking web site Compromat.ru. “They’ve been online for years and nothing has happened. I find it quite funny that now suddenly a maladapted cop’s online appeal raises fears of censorship,” Danilin told The Moscow Times.

He said it was important for security agencies to monitor the web, as was shown by the case of a French nuclear physicist, who in October was arrested after discussing possible terrorist attacks in e-mail exchanges with North African al-Qaida suspects.

Two State Duma deputies outside the ruling United Russia party also argued for strengthening control over the net, with the focus on stopping the spread of pornography and drug abuse, not limiting political dissent.

Gennady Gudkov, a deputy for A Just Russia and a member of the Duma’s Security Committee, said total freedom of expression on the web would lead to a destabilization of the country.

“I am for ‘rational’ freedom. What we do not need is the freedom to publish recipes on how to produce drugs,” Gudkov told The Moscow Times.

Andrei Andreyev, a Communist deputy and member of the Duma’s Information Policy Committee, also said pornography and certain forms of extremism should be banned.

But both deputies agreed that Chinese-style censorship was unlikely because it would only isolate the country from the rest of the world.

“For that you need a new iron curtain. … Russia is too integrated in the global community,” Andreyev told The Moscow Times.